A little to the south of Breisach and some 40 km north of the Swiss border two trees grow, one either side of the towpath that runs along the right bank of the old Rhine channel. These two trees form my portal between northern and southern Europe. This gateway is where the cool north and the warm south meet, the midpoint between machair and maquis.
I have recently discovered that the portal lies precisely on the 48th parallel.
I like to eat my butty here, a little southern pepper salami and cheese sliced by pocket Victorinox and sandwiched into chunks of torn baguette fresh from the boulangerie over the bridge and coffee, inevitably lukewarm, from the flask.
I can sit on the bank of the masculine river, the Father Rhine, lean against a tree and look west to the Vosges mountains and into the afternoon light. This old channel of the Rhine is now only used by yacht and rowing clubs, the main navigation channel lies a few hundred metres west in France.
To the west the 48th parallel runs through Le Mans and Quimper to meet the Atlantic on the Brittany coast.
Behind me and the tree, to the east, stretches a very long walk against the grain along this line of latitude through 10,000 km of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China to the coast of Russia.
The disused towpath here is straight and long and has two scales marked along the bank.
The kilometre stones show the distance downstream from the Swiss border. These are old markers from when each German state on the river, in this case, Baden-Württemberg, started their own scale at zero.
The posts display a more recent scale and show the distance downstream from the Old Bridge in Constance. The 500 metre intervals are marked by a black cross on a white background and in places there are 100 metre subdivision markers. If you pay attention to the markers when running then progress always seems slower, painfully slower.
I can imagine the cold straight Rhine with the scales of distances marked off on the bank as a giant beam balance weighing the south and north, a scaled up version of the fine brass and steel step-on weighing machine that our town doctor had in the corner of the surgery.
A single step to the south of this portal, this European pivot point, the gravity of the South is irresistible, the draw of the Alps, the Dolomites, the mountains of Provence and the White Mountains of Crete, sunshine, sunglasses, warm sea, loud cicadas in the olive trees and the scents of the garrigue and the maquis.
But just one step north and you enter a more driven, hurried, ordered world, and yet from beyond those bright city lights there is the undeniable pull of highlands and islands of cliffs and ocean. One step north and I am hooked and drawn towards the coast from St Finan’s bay to the Faroes, to dry stone walls patiently waiting to shelter my tent and to machair mattresses preparing to rest my bones between prussian blue Atlantic and cobalt sky.
There are five directions,
East, where the sun rises
North, where there is trouble
South, where you may find a friend
West where all that begins, ends
And the fifth direction;
The place where stories come from
And where they say “Once upon a time”.
The sound of the industrious north wakes me from my daydreaming. A couple of metres away and some ten metres up a northern woodpecker is frantically at work banging its head against a tree.
But just to the south of me the siesta continues, all is quiet and on the kilometre stone a lizard basks in the afternoon sun.